What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

June 22, 2006

Warning: arguing about smoking can damage your health

The Financial Times's Martin Wolf today turns his economist’s mind to analysing the risks of passive smoking, and challenges the authoritarian thinking which underpinned the recent legislation banning smoking in ‘public’ places:

As a life-long non-smoker, I wonder what is driving these assaults. Is it an attempt to improve public health, as campaigners suggest? Or do smokers serve a need every society seems to have – for a group of pariahs that all right-thinking people can condemn? I strongly suspect the latter.

John Stuart Mill himself said that: “As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it.” The discovery of passive smoking has, for this reason, given the anti-tobacco lobby its success. It has overwhelmed the protests of libertarians. Riding a tide of moral indignation, the government has enacted a draconian law banning smoking even in private clubs.

Now it plans to extend that ban outdoors. So how many lives might this extension “save” (or, more precisely, prolong)? Indeed, how many lives might the ban itself save?

Now here comes the science:

According to a survey [Smoking in Public Places] published in 2003 by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, a mere seven out of 37 studies showed a statistically significant impact of passive smoking on lung cancer. But pooling the results of all the studies indicated that passive smoking increases the risk of death from lung cancer by 25 per cent. This sounds dramatic. But these studies probably contain biased or inaccurate samples: some smokers may, for example, be classified as non-smokers. Moreover, the risk for non-smokers of death from lung cancer is itself only 10 per 100,000. So the increase generated by passive smoking comes to just 2.5 per 100,000.

If every non-smoker were exposed to sufficient quantities of second-hand smoke this would amount to a maximum of 1,000 deaths a year in England, since it contains some 40m non-smokers (both children and adults). Even 1,000 a year would be less than 0.2 per cent of all deaths in the country. In practice, however, the exposure – and so the number of extra deaths from lung cancer caused by passive smoking – must be very much smaller than this. Many people already live in an overwhelmingly tobacco-free environment. Indeed, if that were not the case, studies comparing those having low exposure to tobacco smoke with those having high exposure would be impossible.

All of which might sound like the kind of thing you’d expect an economist to write - it’s perhaps easier to dismiss 1,000 deaths if your trade is academic journalism, rather than competitive politics.

But the fundamental point Mr Wolf goes on to make is resolutely sound: that if those who argue for a ban on smoking in public had the courage of their convictions they would argue for a ban on smoking in the home, the place where children (who are most vulnerable to prolonged exposure) are most likely to be affected. This is the only measure that would have any real impact on the number of deaths from passive smoking.

If the UK government were engaged in a serious health endeavour, as opposed to gesture politics, it would outlaw smoking in the home. This would be perfectly feasible, or at least as feasible as the much discussed possibility of banning smacking. Children could be encouraged to “shop” their parents. Random visits could be arranged. Surely a government that has given us the antisocial behaviour order would find it neither difficult nor, still less, inappropriate to police the behaviour of adults in their homes.

In reality, of course, no political party would ever attempt anything so draconian. Why? Because it would be too unpopular, and because prohibition has never worked anywhere, ever. So, instead, politicians have chosen to sublimate their health concerns by voting into force a law which deliberately fails to tackle the killer issue.

As I said here last year:

I believe that every time governments impose a law designed to compel individuals to improve their health - whether they like it or not - we make the individual less responsible for their own actions. But a functioning liberal society depends on individuals taking full responsibility for their lives.

A ban on smoking in public places will have a negligible effect on the number of deaths from smoking. So we should stop kidding ourselves that this is a serious health proposal. It's not. It's simply a half-hearted gesture. A Silk Cut Ultra argument dressed up as a Capston Full Strength measure.


Cllr David Morton said...

As liberals we should be limiting, checking and scrutinising state power. Not saying its OK as long as its imposing the values of the Guardian rather than the Daily Mail.

You could say as much of the partys view of the EU.

Paul said...

John Stuart Mill also said “It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate [one’s] freedom.” Strictly, he was referring in this instance to a man hypothetically selling himself into slavery, but remember that Mill was writing at a time when addiction was not as well understood as it is today (and it is not that well understood even now).

Tobacco is both strongly addictive and very harmful. For a liberal, indeed for anyone who regards the ability of the individual to author their own life as the foundation of liberty, even the first of these is objectionable. When coupled with the second, no liberal should be content with inaction.

Of course, addiction is reversible in a way that slavery is not. Moreover, addiction depends on (a) the properties of the substance, (b) the (possibly genetically-determined) predispositions of the user and (c) the details of the environment, so complete prohibition is harder to justify. Also history, and the current war on drugs, suggests that trying completely to proscribe addictive substances does not produce the desired outcomes. Illegality dampens some demand, but it puts all supply in the hands of organised crime; many would argue that the benefit of the former is overwhelmed by the corruption of the latter.

This suggests that a policy of legalisation coupled with regulation may be appropriate for all addictive substances. The stronger the addictiveness, and the greater the harm, the more restrictive should be the regulation. To me, this is the liberal justification for a public smoking ban.

Tristan said...


Sounds like you're trying to justify personal prejudice...

What a person wishes to do to their own body is up to them. The state should not intervene to prevent someone from harming themselves.

People start smoking when its health risks are well known today. Even if nicotine is addictive that is no loss of freedom as the means to stop smoking exist as with other addictive substances.
Addiction is not loss of liberty if it is entered into willingly. You suffer the consequences of your own actions which is only proper.

As for selling yourself into slavery: I have no problem with that so long as you enter it willingly and you're not imposing conditions of slavery on your children.
Of course, that is not slavery if you define slavery as involuntary servitude ie. its enforced using force.

The special case for intervention you carve out for addiction is the thin end of the wedge. Once that justification is admitted it opens the door to censorship on the flimsy grounds of 'addiction' or other actions which harm the individual.
Its like the socialist argument that you cannot be free until you have the wealth to do what you want (or its analogy you cannot be free unless you have wings if you want them).

BarneyRubble69 said...

Health & Safety Executive....
Colin Grainger
18th January 2008.

...or the Ministry of Truth?

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four the main character is Winston Smith. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth and spends his days re-writing the news. You see, previous reports now compromise the Party and need to be altered, with all existing copies destroyed.

In a sinister move, our very own Health & Safety Executive have rewritten a document concerning second hand smoke. The two documents I show you here are called Operational Circulars.

Lets have a look.

This is OC 255-15:

9 The evidential link between individual circumstances of exposure to risk in exempted premises will be hard to establish. In essence, HSE cannot produce epidemiological evidence to link levels of exposure to SHS to the raised risk of contracting specific diseases and it is therefore difficult to prove health-related breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Then, the smoking ban is announced.

So we get a re-written version of the same document, which was not due for review until 2011. (on the 7th August, to be precise).

They call this one OC 255-16:

14 The evidential link between individual circumstances of exposure to risk in exempted premises will be hard to establish.

And from the same document we see:

OC 255/15 – cancel and destroy

Unfortunately, Mr HS&E, your own Winston wasn't fast enough. We captured this ridiculous attempt and we keep it safe. We thought it was time for the public to see just how the Labour Party control your every move.

We just have a couple of simple questions for the HS&E.

If you were unable to produce "epidemiological evidence to link levels of exposure to SHS to the raised risk of contracting specific diseases", on the 30th June 2007, were you able to on the 1st July 2007?

And if so, can we see it?

We have been searching high and low for any real evidence that second hand smoke is harmful for more than three years. We found none.

If you had it all along, it was very naughty of you not to share. The entire scientific community has been trying, without success, to prove that SHS harms for 60 years.

Please let us see it.

It would be doubleplusgood.


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